Run Rabbit Run 100

I had the opportunity to complete the infamous Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race this weekend. The course was both brutal and beautiful. The volunteers were absolutely fantastic. I was challenged, uplifted and beaten down at various points over the course of the race. There were many high and low points over the 31 hours and 19 minutes it took me to finish the race. Ultimately, what I remember most is the purity of the connection to the people on the course. When you are tired and cold and nauseated, you cannot hide who you are. You must be open and be both strong and vulnerable. You must rely on the kindness of friends and strangers to help keep you moving forward. In a world where we can be guarded and jaded, the experience of allowing all of the barriers to slip away and be really present in the moment and open to those around you is unique. When it all comes together, it is refreshing and life-affirming.

I signed up for Run Rabbit Run 100 way back in January, 2016. At the time, I was not really sure why I signed up, but as winter turned into spring, I found myself sinking into a depression. As the weeks and months of training marched on, I realized that spending time running in the mountains was what I needed to save myself. (You can read more about that here: https://mypancreasranaway.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/the-panther-or-the-rabbit/ )

In the past couple of weeks as I stared down a daunting 100-mile mountain race, I felt a familiar mixture of excitement and foreboding. Every time I mentioned what race I was running, people would respond, “Wow, that’s a hard course!” or some version of that sentiment. Looking at the course profile, it isn’t hard to see why Run Rabbit Run has a reputation for difficulty.

runrabbitrun100profile

In addition to the long, steep climbs and the significant elevation change, runners face extremely cold temperatures at night time. I had been warned that many people DNF due to hypothermia. I packed so much cold weather gear that my husband asked me if I thought that I was running in Antarctica. I know that anything can happen over the course of a 100 mile race, but I would not drop out due to not packing the right gear.

The race, which has a 36-hour cut-off, started on September 16, 2016. I had assembled a team of three adults and one teenager. My husband, Stephen, would serve as crew chief and would pace me for approximately thirty miles. Laura, who I had been Facebook friends with for years but had never met in person, surprised me by buying a plane ticket so she could come pace/crew me. She has ultra experience, but lives at sea level, so I was not sure how she she would feel with the altitude and elevation gain. She would run either 10 or 14 miles, depending upon how she felt. My friend Larry, who is a very experienced endurance athlete, would therefore do either 20 or 25. Peyton would be on hand to help crew and keep my spirits lifted.

I chose Run Rabbit Run 100 in part due to the race’s proximity to Colorado Springs. I knew we could drive up in a few hours and I figured it would be relatively easy to get people to come help crew and pace. In fact, there was a large contingent of runners from the Springs area, which made for a warm and welcoming environment.

jenny-denise-tonia-rrr

With Jenny and Denise.

tonia-family-at-start

Tonia, Peyton & Stephen

run-rabbit-run-megan

At the race start (Photo courtesy of Ann Labosky)

We started up the ski hill promptly at 8 am. The course sends runners straight up Mount Werner, gaining approximately 3,500 feet of elevation in the first 4.4 miles. Even though I did a lot of steep training runs, I had a moment of wondering what in the hell I had signed up for. By the time we reached the top of the hill, I had sweat dripping off of my face. Nevertheless, I knew that we would essentially be headed out on a net downhill for the next several miles. I chose to try not to think too much about what was to come later in the race, instead just opting to enjoy the scenery. I spent some time shaking out the nerves and chatting with people, knowing that it was very early and I had to keep the pace conservative to save energy for the big climbs that would come later in the race.

early-race

long-lake

Long Lake

The Long Lake aid station is at mile 10.8. I was still feeling good and the trails, which had been crowded up to this point, began to open up. We headed to Fish Creek Falls, a section which starts off with fabulous single track that becomes quite rocky and technical. I was running alone at this point, listening to music and enjoying the scenery.

to-fish-creek

rrr-foliage

fish-creek

My sunglasses were bugging me a bit so I took them off. While I was messing with them, I tripped and fell, hitting both knees on rocks. I had only gone about 12 miles into the race. The hard hit stunned me and I had blood streaming down both legs. I walked for a minute, assessing the damage. Nothing appeared to be broken, so I shuffled back into a run, hoping for the best. From Fish Creek Falls, we ran along a four-mile section of trail back into Steamboat Springs.

Olympian Hall

I came down into the Olympian Hall aid station with a considerable amount of blood and dirt on my legs, but was thrilled to see Steve, Peyton and Laura. After stopping briefly to restock my gels, I moved on and headed up the next section of trail.

olympian-hall-tonia

olympian-aid-station

(photos courtesy of Laura Falsone)

Cow Creek

As we moved on towards Cow Creek, the general consensus was, “Wow, this hill didn’t look this big on the course profile!” I spent several miles with a guy who shared some interesting stories from his years of dirt-bagging. Eventually, we parted ways and I ran into two runners I had been talking with earlier. Neither were feeling well at this point. One was injured and the other was sick to her stomach. I tried to give them both a pep talk, reminding them that they would likely feel good, then bad, then good, then bad, for the rest of the race. I think I was also trying to remind myself of that fact, because at this point my left knee, which had taken the brunt of the earlier impact, began to stiffen up. Every step hurt as I made my way down into the Cow Creek aid station. In addition, I had switched water reservoirs in my hydration pack and something had been digging into my back for the entirety of the section. I kept running with one hand between my pack and my back to eliminate any more damage.

cow-creek-tonia

Arriving in Cow Creek with Peyton and Steve (photo courtesy of Laura Falsone)

Larry had made it into Steamboat, and several other local friends were at the aid station waiting for their runners, so Cow Creek felt warm and inviting. Even though I was in a lot of pain and wondering what the future would hold, everyone assured me that I looked strong and was running between a 27 and 28 hour pace. This was ahead of what I thought I could do, so that lifted my spirits. Aside from my knee and back, I felt OK, so I headed back of the aid station feeling hopeful for the rest of the race.

The next segment back to Olympian Hall was a rolling 12-mile section. My knee loosened up and I was able to run quite a bit. The sun was shining and the scenery along the single track was lovely. I was enjoying this section tremendously until my right hip flexor started to tighten up. I tried to adjust and loosen it up, hoping the pain would fade. We ran down the long steep downhill section back into Olympian Hall. Here the plan was to pick Laura up for the four mile uphill road section to the Fish Creek Falls trail head, where I would meet Larry for the night. However, shuttle issues forced a change in plans. Now Larry, who had been mountain biking but not running all summer, would be forced to cover nearly 25 miles with me.

rrr-tonia-larry-heading-out-of-olympian

With Larry, headed off into the night.

I had been warned by many runners to grab warm clothing at Olympian, because as soon as the sun goes down, the mountains get extremely cold. Last year, the temperature on the course had dropped down to 8 degrees. I had been running in shorts and a tank top for hours, but threw on a long-sleeve shirt and grabbed another warm shirt, gloves and tights to put on as it got colder. We ran through town, and within a few minutes, I was hot. I stopped and took off my shirt in what would become the first in a night of many wardrobe changes. We ended up hiking much of the uphill back to the Fish Creek Falls trail head. From there, we headed on another six-mile climb back up to Long Lake.

Friendship and Inspiration

One of the things I love most about running ultras is having the opportunity to talk with people and hear their stories. People open up in a way they might not ever under other circumstances. While the scenery of a race makes the time alone special, the discussions are a big part of what makes the night memorable.

I first met Larry a few years ago when I happened to see him running close to where I live. He had on a Team Crud (Coloradans Running Ultra Distances) shirt, and I was just starting to get into ultras. I stopped him and asked some questions about races and CRUD. He humored me, answering a few of my questions. He probably thought I was a crazy lady, but that’s OK because I am forever thankful for that chance encounter.

I ran a few ultras after that meeting and then was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As I struggled to come back to my previous form following surgery and chemo, I stumbled across Larry’s blog. I read a post where he talked about some of his own medical issues. Feeling very much alone at the time, I wrote to him. I did not know if he would remember me, but he wrote back and gave me a pep talk. Even though our issues were different, I finally felt like someone might just understand what I was going through. He encouraged me to be patient and gave me hope that things might be different but they would get better.

During the last couple of years, Larry has been an tremendous source of inspiration to me. He is an incredible athlete who has completed the Leadman series several times, but, more importantly, he is an amazing human being who gives so much to others. Larry coaches a local high school mountain bike team, spends his free time volunteering to maintain local trails and still finds time to crew/pace friends at races throughout Colorado. I followed him as he ran Burning River 100 mile race as a fundraiser for the Akron Children’s Hospital (coverage of this story can be found here:  https://www.akronchildrens.org/cms/sharing_blog/deac461c4d31a0e9/)  Knowing how much slower I am than Larry is, I was extremely humbled and grateful when he said he would pace me at Run Rabbit Run.

Running Through the Night

Larry spent most of the night sharing stories with me. I was so wrapped up in his tales that I temporarily forgot to eat. This led to a blood sugar issue as we headed uphill on the Fish Creek Trail. As we picked our way over rocks and up the climb, Larry watched me stagger and stumble like I was drunk. Because he coaches a type 1 diabetic, he knew exactly how to remedy things. He made me eat a gel every 15 minutes until I started to feel coherent again. This is why I have a pacer. I knew I was in good hands and I am grateful he was there with me.

It was at this point that the temperature seemed to plummet. I was shaking, my toes went numb and I knew I needed to get changed immediately. I plopped down on the side of a swampy section of single track and pulled off my shorts. Larry, ever the gentleman, looked the other way as he dug through his pack for a jacket. Several runners came through as I was changing and asked if we were OK. This was a reasonable question, as we had recently seen several runners throwing up along the side of the trail. I just laughed and said, “Yes, I am just getting naked…You’re welcome.”

We headed up a long uphill section that took us back to Long Lake and then to the high point on the course at Summit Lake.I was once again freezing. I grabbed warmer tights, stepped about a foot away from a crowd at the aid and changed again. I just did not have the energy to be modest at this point. I started joking that it was goal to flash every runner on the course. We headed down a 2100 foot drop into the Dry Lake Aid Station, where I would be picking up Laura for a ten-mile section. Once again, my knee started to stiffen up. I was running when I could and hiking when I had to. It was frustrating, but I maintained my sense of humor about it. As it turned out, Larry didn’t have to worry about not having run much over the summer. I told him I wouldn’t break any speed records and I as right.

We got into Dry Lake, where we met Steve and Laura. I gave Larry a big hug and told him to get some sleep. Laura and I headed off onto a section that featured several bridges and most likely would have been beautiful during the daytime hours. Fortunately for us, there was a bright spectacular full moon and very few clouds in the sky. It was a beautiful crisp night and we chatted, alternating walking and running through this out-and-back section that was fairly crowded. We got to the Spring Creek aid station, got a bite to eat and then headed back to Dry Lake.

Heading to the Finish

When we arrived back in Dry Lake, Stephen was ready to get me to the finish line. We had roughly 30 miles to go at this point. I had just gone uphill for 4.5 miles and we were facing another 8 mile climb back to Summit Lake. I knew we would be hiking most of this and was fine with that. I was tired but my spirits were still high. We laughed and joked as we made our way up the jeep road. The moon went down and the sky began to lighten. I knew 27 and 28 hour finish times were long gone. I also knew that a sub-30 was pretty much out of the question. Normally, I would be upset to slow down as much as I did, but I honestly did not care one bit. My knee and groin had been hurting and my back hurt where my pack had rubbed it raw. I knew, however, that i had more than enough time to walk it in to the finish line if I had to.

tonia-running-at-rrr

When we finally got to the Summit aid station at mile 81.5, I was looking forward to jogging downhill for a bit. As I started to run, however, my right ankle hurt so badly that I immediately had to stop.I tried to jog again and just couldn’t do it. I felt the ankle and determined that it was probably just an angry tendon, so I resigned myself to walking. We walked back to the Long Lake aid station for the third time. I changed my clothes once again, putting on shorts in preparation for warmer temperatures.

The rolling but mostly uphill section to Mount Werner seemed infinitely longer than it actually was. I was getting passed by plenty of people but I did not give a second thought to attempting to chase anyone down. All I wanted to do was finish. I did not want to injure myself but I knew if I kept walking I would cross the finish line with minimal damage to my body. We rolled quickly through the aid station and then hit the 6.4 mile road that would take us to the finish line.

My husband is an amazing man who not only supports me in theory as I tackle these adventures, he is always there with me as I take those final steps to the finish line. Throughout the last miles of the race, I asked him to talk to me, but I could only give one word answers. This was the first time in my life that I ever got sleepy during a race. I became frustrated when I found out that he had told me I had 12 miles to go, but it was really 12.8 miles (Hey, it MATTERS!) Despite the fact that I was exhausted, I would never take my exhaustion out on my husband. He is the man who stands metaphorically and physically with me as I struggle through the most difficult times in my life.He is my rock and my hero and I come away from these races feeling more in love and connected to him than ever.

Dropping back down 3500 feet over the stretch felt painful and cruel. Many people remarked that they were unable to run at this point, and I was definitely in this camp. It was hot and I was hurting. Even Stephen was hurting at this point and wondering where the finish line was. Finally, we saw it.

finish-rrr

Peyton ran out to meet us and I gave Larry a hug as we made it down the road. I was completely spent physically but emotionally ecstatic. We got to the grassy section before the finish line and pathetically jogged over it.

finish-peyton

I got my 100 miler buckle and a beer mug for my efforts, finishing in 31:19. This was my slowest 100 mile finish by nearly five hours, yet I was not remotely disappointed with my finish time or placement. I was simply ecstatic that I finished the race and, despite some aches and pains, had a truly spectacular time.

rrr-finish

finish-chair

crew-rrr

tracey-megan-tonia-rrr

It was so wonderful to be greeted at the finish line by two of my favorite female runners, Tracey & Meghan.

After the race, we went back to the condo we had rented. I was so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open. I was also too sore to sleep, so that made for an interesting night. When I awoke at 3 am the next morning, I was in a state of deep emotional happiness and gratitude. Yes, I was proud of my finish, but more importantly, I was filled with intense appreciation for all of the people who had supported me along the way. There is something so uniquely special about running through the night with people. I find that people become the essence of who they truly are over those long nighttime miles. We talk about things that we might never discuss under different circumstances. The stories, the images, and the memories will stick with me forever.

I spent the summer training for this race, often alone in the mountains for hours, trying to work my way through my own issues. Over those 31 hours and 19 minutes, I was grateful to be there in the midst of the outstanding scenery and to feel fully alive. I am thankful for the opportunity to dig deep, to work through the problems and to connect with other human beings. When people have asked me why I do ultras, I have often said it is because I enjoy the challenge. While this is completely true, more than anything, I embrace the chance to learn about not only myself but those who are around me. I am forever grateful for the selflessness of others, for friendship, for the shared stories, for love and for the opportunity to fully be my perfectly flawed self. After struggling for months with my own inner demons, a 103+ mile trek through the mountains of Colorado finally brought me the sense of connection to others I desperately needed

Finally, I had the opportunity to work with Paul Nelson and his amazing crew, John Uibel, Marina Polonsky and Shawn Brown, at Run Rabbit Run.

film-crew

They are putting together a documentary about the race and they chose to feature me as a ‘human interest’ story. They followed several elite runners as well as a few of us regular folks. I am honored to be a part of this project and am pleased that they chose to feature a variety of runners. Look for this to be coming out by the end of 2016!

https://www.facebook.com/paulmichaelnelsonphoto/?fref=ts

The Panther or the Rabbit

I last posted at the end of April, 2016, following a disappointing finish at the Cheyenne Mountain 50 K.  Throughout the spring and summer, I had plenty to say but simply could not give voice to my thoughts. These last few months have been filled with change, uncertainty, beginnings and endings. As the numerous stressors mounted, many of which I am choosing to keep private, I felt my suit of armor cracking. And so it was after several months of facing an ongoing series of challenges, I found myself staring over a literal and metaphorical abyss, facing an existential depression, wondering, “Why did I survive my cancer? Why am I here?”

Depression

After being told by so many  for so long that I was ‘strong’, I at first failed to heed the warnings. A bad day. A bad week. A stressful month. Finally, I could no longer avoid or ignore the reality. It felt like I was being stalked by a stealth black panther. At first, there was a sense that ‘something’ was lurking in the background. Then I could see glimpses of it, far off between the trees. It drew closer, watching and waiting, until finally it pounced, knocking me to the ground, with claws drawn and jaws wide open. Would it snap my neck? Would it rip my heart out? Would I, could I, fight back?

To the outside world, all was fine. I kept up appearances and took care of all of my responsibilities. But my contact with most people dwindled. Instead of reaching out, or calling for help, I moved more deeply into dark recesses of my inner world as I tried to make sense of what I thinking and feeling.

Finding a Way Out

In January, 2016, I signed up for the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race. Located in Steamboat Springs, CO, the race is actually over 100 miles. The website says that it features about 20,000 feet or ascent and descent. In other words, it is quite challenging. After my 50k in April, I not only considered not running the 100, I contemplated never racing again. My foot had hurt for months. Maybe I was too old to keep running ultras. After facing cancer, surgery and chemotherapy, maybe I just needed to give myself a break and take it easy. Or maybe the truth was that I just no longer cared or had the drive to train. I specifically remember being out with my husband on what was supposed to be a flat 20-mile run. I had thrown in the towel and was walking down the trail saying, “I think I am done, not just for today but for good.”

My emotional state was chipping away at my physical well-being. Once an every day runner, I was now even questioning that part of my identity. I could jog a few short, flat miles, but I had lost my interest in going farther or faster.I had been dealing with foot pain and endocrine issues. Running just did not feel fun anymore. I always swore that when I stopped having fun, I would move on to a new activity.

Embarrassed and ashamed of feeling as I did, I kept my thoughts between my husband and myself. I have since learned that it is very, very common for cancer survivors (and survivors of other significant medical conditions) to go through a period of depression following their illnesses. We put everything we have into fighting for so long, that when the clear and present danger passes, the bottom can fall out on everything else. I felt frustrated with myself. I was alive and OK. Why did I feel the way I was feeling?

Running

As I questioned my own life, and struggled to make sense of who I was at this point in my life, I decided that I had to at least make a decision on something simple. Was I still a runner or not? Would I train for Run Rabbit Run 100, or would I close the door on the ultra chapter of my life?

A brief conversation with a friend helped point me in the direction I needed to go. She was discussing someone in her life who was facing a goal that would take sacrifice and work. She did not think this person would be able to reach her goal. The reason? “She isn’t willing to suffer.” The conversation quickly moved on to something else, but I came back to the line many, many times in recent months. I wondered, “Was I willing to suffer to try to reach a goal?” If I could endure the suffering, then maybe I could embrace the physical pain while I worked through my emotional pain.

I knew the only way I could answer this question was to go hit the hills.

north slope

Running Ultras

In April I wanted to quit racing. Within a couple of weeks, I fully committed myself to training for Run Rabbit Run 100. I felt that I needed it desperately. My life, physical and my mental health depended on it.

 

I have finished two other 100 mile races. The first time around, I just wanted to see if I could do it. The second time around, it was a very public experience. I wanted to have a big comeback from pancreatic cancer. I raised money for charity and wrote a lot about the training process. This time around, my journey to running 100+miles has been deeply personal. I have spent hours alone on the trails trying to discover just how much I am willing to suffer and endure. That probably does not sound fun, and it often isn’t. Was I trying to run from something? Was I trying to run to something? Was I trying to make the physical pain feel as intense as the emotional pain felt? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

elk

Along the way, I found that even when it felt like the world was cracking, shifting and imploding around me, I could eventually find peace in being alone, pushing myself, feeling my heart exploding out of my chest, and feeling my muscles and lungs burning. I kept myself alive and moving forward, with each challenging step.

As I learned during my battle with pancreatic cancer, sometimes it is the most difficult battles that we face that bring the deepest sense of meaning to our lives. Sometimes the battles take place in the public sphere. Sometimes those battles are internal, away from even our closest friends and family.

7 bridges

The hardest part of an ultra endurance event is usually not the race itself, but the training process. When you sign up, you commit to train and make sacrifices towards reaching your goal for months at a time. With each ultramarathon training cycle, I have learned something new about myself. This time around, I am redefining what ‘strength’ means to me personally. I am not afraid of suffering and sacrifice. In fact, there is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes through incredibly physically and emotionally demanding hard work. I needed to spend days, weeks, even months, exploring my own ability to endure, even embrace, suffering. In life, after all, we will suffer. Sometimes it seems like we have to endure way more than our fair share of suffering. But that is life. We all will face hardship and must learn how to endure pain. As I pushed myself, I knew if I could endure, I could survive not only the difficult trails, but what I was facing in my life.

Though it has not always been easy, my countless miles on the trail have been a much-needed time of learning and reflection. In times when I felt alone and lonely, I found peace, contentment and a sense of self-reliance on the Colorado trails. I did not find a quick fix to any of the issues I was trying to sort out. Instead, I found that sometimes what we need is not a solution or a quick-fix but trust and patience in ourselves and the process. Gradually, the laughter and joy began to emerge again. I learned that I can look out into the abyss and question my purpose but that does not mean that I will disappear into the depths and darkness.

dawn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Air

I felt secure in my health. Invincible. I knew I was not immortal but I pictured a long, active, healthy life surrounded by people I love. I had a follow-up appointment scheduled with my doctor on a day when my husband had training for his job. He offered to change his training days, but I was so confident all would be fine that I told him not to bother. I would go alone. It would be fine. I would be fine.

As I  waited in the oncologist’s office, I had some mild pre-report jitters, which is normal.. The doctor came in and we engaged in a couple of minutes of idle chit-chat. I was waiting for the words, “Everything is fine. I will see you in three months.” But, instead, he opened his mouth and told me there was a lymph node near the celiac plexus that needed to be biopsied. As we looked through my scans together, he showed me another spot, this one on my liver. He emphasize that both could be nothing. However, he was recommending further testing to be sure.

As I listened to him, I kept a half-smile on my face, because I don’t want to show that I am rattled. But, I can feel the air leaving the room. I have a deja vu. I am back in 2013  when I first heard bad news about a tumor in my body that needed to be checked out further. I feel the same half-smile on my face, nodding in agreement to a voice that sounds a million miles away. No air. I hear the tumor board will discuss my case and let me know what will happen next. I think: I am alone. WHY did I come alone? Because I thought I was fine. I AM fine. But I thought I was fine in 2013, also. I don’t know what is real. I cannot trust my own instincts. I am afraid and so very alone.

I think, ‘What am I going to tell my daughters?’ I cannot tell them everything is fine, but I don’t want them to worry needlessly. After all,  I am going to be fine.

I leave and am, fortunately, able to speak to my husband. He sounds like I feel. A punch to the stomach. Fear. Disbelief. We are both desperate to be together, but are over 100 miles apart. I cry on a bench by the hospital elevator and I don’t care who sees me. I can’t drive. I can’t breathe. He has to return to class. I drag myself downstairs for the ride home but I just can’t do it yet. I sit on another bench and cry for 20 minutes, watching the rain pouring down outside. What am I going to tell my daughters?

Eventually, I pull it together enough to drive home. I talk to my parents. I talk with a couple of very close friends. I get home and sit on the floor, unable to move for 20 minutes. I am so thankful for Sadie, my Boston Terrier, who is licking my face. When my daughters come home, I tell them I need another test, but I do not elaborate. We have too little information. I am scared but I do not want to cause them unnecessary stress. There is no point. It seems cruel. They will know as soon as we know for sure one way or the other, good news or bad.

Sadie on my lap

The doctor calls the next day and says a biopsy is recommended. I vacillate between thinking I am totally fine and feeling fear that comes from seemingly nowhere. It consumes me on a visceral level. It does not seem to be triggered by anything in particular. I can only assume it is a response to the old wounds and fears coming back. One minute I am fine and the next I feel like the earth is swallowing me whole.

I cannot think about possible treatments. In fact, I don’t. I think about the test and just want to get through that. But when Stephen and I start discussing plans we have…races we have signed up for and trips we will take to see family, I become choked up. “But I have PLANS,” I think. “I have so much stuff that I want to do!”

The waiting is the hardest. Neither of us sleep well. We walk around, distracted zombies, trying to go through the motions and fulfill our daily duties and obligations. There is no time to emotionally deal with our personal crisis. We are so busy, we wish we had time to just sit and hold each other. When there is a moment of down time, our thoughts become our own worst enemies.

Steve & Tonia Santa Fe

I have the test. They biopsy enlarged lymph nodes. I go home and I wait and wait and wait. i try to figure out what it means. Why haven’t I heard anything? Is no news good news or does he not want to deliver bad news over the phone? I over analyze.

I actually think that I am healthy and fine. The logical side thinks I will be OK, but since I thought I was fine prior to my initial diagnosis, that leaves the door slightly open. Wednesday comes and I am supposed to see the doctor. A blizzard arrives, shutting down essentially every major road on the Colorado Front Range and I am stuck at home waiting to see if I will learn any news. I work and play games with my kids, but I am anxious and distracted. Finally, my phone rings and I get the news: I am fine. There is no sign of cancer in the lymph nodes.

There is relief and joy when I tell people, but after two-and-a-half weeks of living in some alternate universe, my own personal little time in hell, I am mentally exhausted. The news comes to me not as a surprise, but as a confirmation. I am fine. I knew it.

Today, as everything sinks in, I celebrate a new day of continued good health with a run. There is air. I can breathe again.

10393797_10204548838416644_4586861812230921775_n

 

 

 

Love and Marriage

We met and he told me he had gone to school in my hometown. I had little faith in men and relationships and I did not believe him. I thought it was a line. But then I realized it was true and I felt the comfort of connecting with someone who shares your roots and who understands where you come from. It felt like home.

I was someone who did not become attached to people easily. I ended many fledgling relationships quickly. I did not mind moving away or moving on.

He did not try to impress me. He did not try to wine or dine me. He simply wanted to spend time with me. He wanted to show me the trails he loved. He wanted to talk to me and just be together.

We hiked. We ran. We talked. We kissed.

I enjoyed his company. We shared a similar sense of adventure. We traveled.

Tahoe

We raced. We started thinking about the possibility of a future.

wyoming

He was not jealous or possessive. He did not grill me about my past. He was willing to listen if there was something I wanted to talk about, but he did not push me for details. He asked questions but did not demand answers.

I enjoyed the simplicity of our relationship. We spent hours, days, weekends together. The conversations were not forced. We did not agree on everything, but we when we disagreed, we did so respectfully. We were alike, but we were not the same.

We laughed and had fun. We shared dreams and goals. He listened to my darkest secrets and they did not scare him.

He was kind to my daughter. He was playful and fun and enjoyed being with her.

riley and steve

I fell in love with him. We planned a life of adventure and outdoor endeavors. We were young and healthy and took it for granted that we would always be so.

Moab

We had a baby. He was a beautiful father. He loved me. He loved our girls. We were a loving family of four.

soccer coach

steve girls

I had a simple surgery that went terrible wrong. He brought my damaged body home from the hospital. I was in excruciating pain. I never thought I would be the same. I couldn’t leave the house many days. I was 35. He cleaned me and cared for me. He could have left. This was not the life he had signed up for. But, of course, he did no such thing. He is loyal and caring and kind.

Eventually we found a doctor who could fix the damage. Gradually I got better. After a couple of years, we were going on adventures together  and having fun again. We raised our family together. We went to band concerts and gymnastics and cross country and karate and all of the other kid activities together. We ran and hiked and laughed and played. We made wonderful memories. We took it for granted that we would grow old together.

I got cancer. He brought me in for surgery and waited in the waiting room. He tended to me in the hospital. He brought me home on one of the coldest days I can ever remember. He walked around the block with me in the frigid cold, holding me so I would not fall on the ice.

He went to every chemotherapy appointment. He cared for me and the girls while I was sick. He held me every single night because the girl who previously needed no one actually needed him desperately.

And gradually, I got better. We went on with our lives, forever altered and different. We were damaged and weary, but still in love.

I love him because he takes out the garbage. I love him because he takes the girls ice skating and swimming and skiing and to the amusement park.

I love him because he repairs the fence and because he puts air in Riley’s tires. I love him because he is reliable and hard-working and honest.

I love him because he whether I say, “I want to get a dog” or “I want to run 100 miles”, he says, “OK, go ahead and do it. I support you.” I love him because he has cared for me when I could not care for myself.

I love my husband more today than I did in the early months of of our relationship. There is passion and intrigue in those early months, and it feels like love, but it really is not. Love comes after you build a life together. Love comes when you spend days together with your baby, who is in the NICU. Love grows as you share time and experiences together. Love happens when you learn each other’s stories, fears, and passions. Love is tested as you face adversity together. Love develops when you hold each other’s hands as you go through hell and back together.

Love happens when you spend years together. Happy Anniversary, honey. We have been through so much together. Thank you for sharing this flawed and beautiful life with me.

inspiraiton point

Two Year Cancerversary

November 18, 2013. That was the day I had surgery for pancreatic cancer. I was one of the lucky ones. I could have surgery. Most people with my diagnosis cannot. Half of my pancreas and my whole spleen were removed and then shortly thereafter I went through 18 rounds of chemo. It was a long road that I have previously chronicled here, but I made it through. Most pancreatic cancer patients do not survive the first year. In fact, 80% do not make it to the one year mark.

When I planned my surgery, I did it strategically. In our house, November is a busy month. Our oldest daughter, my husband and my father all have November birthdays. I remember scheduling my surgery between my daughter’s 16th birthday and my husband and dad’s birthdays. I knew my illness cast a dark cloud over all of our celebrations that year, but I wanted to try to give enough time so that we could celebrate everyone else’s special day.

Last year, as the birthdays and my cancerversary approached, I admit that I thought a lot about my own anniversary. I was excited for the birthdays and so grateful that I got to be there for them, but I thought a great deal about my own anniversary and what it meant to me. I thought about everything that it signified and all of the stuff that we had experienced over that past year.

This year, as my cancerversary has approached, I have been aware of it, but in a significant mental and emotional shift, it has become less important to me. I have been more focused on other stuff in my life: Riley’s 18th birthday, my husband’s 50th birthday, my daddy’s birthday, my work and the race series that I am currently wrapped up in co-directing.

Still, it is an important anniversary and one that bears marking, because so much in our worlds changed two years ago. At this point in time in 2013, our worlds were rocked by my diagnosis. We did not know how much time I would have with my family. I think about the things that I have gotten to take part in over the last two years that I might not have had I not been so fortunate throughout my diagnosis and treatment. There have been birthdays. The girls were 10 and 16 when I was diagnosed. Now they are 12 and 18. Riley is legally an adult. Riley got her driver’s license. The college decision has been made (Go CSU Rams!) There have been homecomings and a prom. For Peyton, there have been karate belts earned, selection for a club volleyball team and a number of other successes in athletic and academic areas. She moved from elementary to middle school as I finished chemotherapy.

With Riley & Peyton on Riley's 18th birthday

With Riley & Peyton on Riley’s 18th birthday

Steve and I celebrated another year of wedded bliss. My family and I took an amazing vacation together, where I also happened to run a 100 mile race.

The family crossing the finish line with me!

The family crossing the finish line with me at the Bryce 100

Goofing around in Bryce Canyon after the race

Goofing around in Bryce Canyon after the race

I ran a full marathon and a half-marathon with Project Purple charity teams.

With Elli & Dino

With Elli & Dino in Lincoln, NE

With Jenny

With Jenny in her home state of NE

Several of the Project Purple Denver team members at the event.

Several of the Project Purple Denver team members at the event.

I ran a 50 mile race this fall at the Bear Chase Trail Race.

Lucky girl getting a hug from both RDs, Ben Reeves (l) and David Manthey (R). Notice the missing glass lens.

Lucky girl getting a hug from both RDs, Ben Reeves (l) and David Manthey (R). Notice the missing glass lens.

I ran a mountain race with my husband and friends.

Breck Crest with my honey

Breck Crest with my honey

With Debby, my friend since I moved to CO in 1999!

With Debby, my friend since I moved to CO in 1999!

11921677_10204973782479980_2862701478840867700_n

I race directed a charity 5k for Project Purple and continued working with our local club, the Pikes Peak Road Runners.

Having fun after the race!

Having fun after the Project Purple 5k!

With my PPRR Fall Series crew

With my PPRR Fall Series crew

We gained a new family member when we adopted Willy in January.

Our newest family member, Willy

Our newest family member, Willy

And last week, we said good-bye to the Grand Dame, Greta, who passed away..

She was a natural beauty

Greta, the Bullmastiff

I got to spend time with our wonderful extended family back east over the summer, which is something I never, ever take for granted.

Through all of this, I have met so many amazing and wonderful people that I simply cannot name them all. I do hope they all know the positive impact they have had on my life.

I often think in long-term thoughts now, which is something I did not always feel that I could or should do. I wonder what college will be like for Riley and what high school will be like for Peyton. I wonder what new adventures are on the horizon for Steve and me as our kids grow and prepare to move on to live their own lives independent of us..

Not everything is easy or joyous, of course. You never get through cancer without any long-term repercussions. I saw an endocrinologist recently and  we agreed that it was time to try a medication to help stabilize my blood sugar levels, which have been all over the place. I have not felt like my normally energetic self for a while now and I am hoping that this will help return me to where I used to be. I am still trying to make peace with this recent turn of events. I would never have been in this position if I had not had half of my pancreas taken out. While I know that I am so very lucky to be here, I am also frustrated by how I have been feeling. If pancreatic cancer had not chosen me, I would not be facing the health issues that I am facing now.

All of the above being said, I know that pancreatic cancer gave me many gifts, too. One of those gifts is the gift of friendship from so many people I would not have otherwise met. I will relay one story now because it demonstrates to me the serendipity of life. In September, I was running the Bear Chase 50 mile race. I was wearing my Project Purple shirt which says “Survivor/Running with half a pancreas” on the back. I passed a woman who was running the 50k (different courses that converge over time) and she asked me, “Why are you running with half a pancreas?” I told her my story and she told me that she was a type 1 diabetic. We chatted a bit, but eventually parted ways. I had hoped that I would see her again after the race was over, but I did not.

Three weeks later, I was working the Project Purple booth at the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon expo. Guess who stopped by?

With my new friend, Jen.

With my new friend, Jen.

Jen and I were meant to meet. I believe that fully in my heart. As it turns out, she had a friend who was battling pancreatic cancer. Sadly, her friend passed away shortly after we met in Denver; another tragic loss to this dreadful disease.

When I met with the endocrinologist a couple of weeks later, he told me to make friends with Type 1 diabetic athletes. I believe we met because we both needed each other at this point in our lives. She needed to see someone living beyond PC and I needed to meet someone who could show me that distance running and diabetes can co-exist. It all seems overwhelming right now but I know that I will figure it all out in time.

So much has happened in the past two years. I am so grateful that I am still here. I have been given the gift of more time with my family, and I have been given the gift of new and meaningful friendships. This year I look forward to seeing my eldest graduate from high school and go off to college, and to seeing my youngest enter her teenage years. Even though it has not always been easy, I am excited to see what year three brings!

You can read last year’s cancerversary remembrance here:

https://mypancreasranaway.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/remembering-on-my-cancerversary/

Breck Crest Mountain Marathon Race Report

This past Saturday, Steve and I ran the Breck Crest Mountain Marathon (http://www.mavsports.com/events/?event-categories=breck-crest-2015 ), a challenging high altitude mountain trail race. We last ran the Breck Crest Mountain Marathon in 2007. At that time, I had just run Pikes Peak Marathon two weeks prior and had a bit of a groin injury. Somewhere around mile 15 or 16, Steve severely sprained his ankle. We finished the race, but basically limped in to the finish. In fact, we were so late to the finish that year, that our family had given up on us and gone back to the condo we had rented. Nevertheless, the beauty of the course had left quite an impression on Steve and me and we had always wanted to go back and run it again.

This year, our friends Debby and John had invited us to join them on race weekend. Debby was going to run the half-marathon and John the full. We thought it would be a great way to get away for a couple of days, run a race and enjoy some time with our family and friends. Since Steve had been training on Pikes Peak most of the summer, I knew he would do fine at altitude. I, on the other hand, had not had time to get up very high in the mountains. I knew I would suffer pretty much right from the start of the race. I just hoped that Steve would be tired still from his Pikes Peak Double so that we could comfortably run together.

The Breck Crest starts at 9500 feet elevation in downtown Breckenridge. Pretty much immediately, the runners head up into the ski hills and surrounding trails. Runners climb about 3000 feet over the first several miles, topping out at 12,500 feet of elevation. The half-marathoners drop back down into town at this point, while the marathoners drop down to around 11,000 feet before heading back up to 12,500. From there, the course follows the “crest” over the ski hills of Breck. Runners stay up at 12,000 feet or above until mile 12 when the course drops back down, rolling between 10,000 and 10,500 for several miles. The final mile brings runners back to downtown Breckenridge. The trail is often rocky, covered in roots and quite technical. It is also spectacularly beautiful.The race course is actually short of a full marathon. My garmin read 24 miles, Steve’s read 23.5 and John’s read 23.7. The first time I signed up for this race, I was bothered by the fact that it was not a “true” marathon. After having run this race twice now, the hills and the high altitude provide enough of a challenge that I never feel like I got cheated out of miles.

Our family loaded up the car and drove up to Breckenridge Friday evening. We stopped by race headquarters at the Vertical Runner store in Breckenridge. This is a lovely running store, and any runner visiting the area should check it out. We chatted with RD Jeff Westcott and picked up our numbers. Vertical Runner was providing free pasta for racers and their family. This gave the race an extra nice and homey feel. It was great way to start the weekend.

The next morning, Peyton snapped a quick picture of us before we headed out on our adventure.

Steve, me, Debby & John

Steve, me, Debby & John

We headed down and lined up at the race start in downtown Breckenridge. We saw Steve’s co-worker Chris, who had driven up that morning for his first attempt at a mountain trail race. We also were pleasantly surprised to see Steve’s childhood friend, Dave, who lives in Silverthorne. Dave had ridden his bike over to see us off at the race start. We chatted for a few moments and then were on our way.

My goals for this race were to 1) spend time with Steve, 2) enjoy the views and 3) get in a good training run for races coming up later in the season. I knew I was not trained for the altitude, so I figured that for the first time in my life, I would take pictures on the course and just generally have a good time.

The race course gains about 3000 feet over the first six miles. It is a very runnable course in the early miles. My main goal in those early miles was to keep my heart rate and breathing under control. This was not too much of an issue. If I felt the hills and altitude getting to me, I just back off the pace and hiked until I felt recovered.

Early uphill in the Breck Crest

Early uphill in the Breck Crest

Steve and I ran together, chatting throughout the early miles. As we reached an elevation of around 11,000 feet, we had to switch over to power hiking. The trail grows very steep in this area, as you head up to tree line. Despite our slower pace, we managed to pass a few runners during this section.

11960200_10204969127123599_290887859187214531_n

More hiking as we near a snow field and the top of the first big climb.

More hiking as we near a snow field and the top of the first big climb.

By around mile 6, we reached 12,500 feet of elevation. We chatted off and on with Josh and John, runners we had just met out on the course. The course rolls for a bit and then eventually turns into a quad-busting steep downhill. We ran back down to about 11,000 feet between miles 9 and 10. Then, we power-hiked back up to an elevation of 12,500+ feet, peaking at mile 12.

Running at 12,500 feet

Running at 12,500 feet

At this point, we ran up above treeline for a ways. The views from the crest are spectacular.

11915108_10204969131083698_4986519907803136937_n

11904678_10204969131563710_8706568503956489728_n

11951135_10204969127483608_5849424700591967084_n

As we headed back down below treeline, we hit more screaming downhills. I knew we still had a long way to go and tried not to burn myself out. The trail is extremely rocky and root-filled through this downhill, so Steve and I were both concentrating on making it down without getting hurt. Finally, around mile 16 we made it back down below 11,000 feet. At mile 17, I said to Steve, “I think it is time to start racing now!” Steve replied with an incredulous, “What?!” There were not too many other marathoners, as most people seem to choose to run the half, but I set about trying to pick off as many runners as I could from mile 17 to the finish.

I was really enjoying myself at this point until we had a couple of unfortunate incidents with mountain bikers. The vast majority of mountain bikers were so polite and accommodating of those of us who were running. However, we had a couple who literally ran me off the trail. I will spare most of the details, but because mountain bikers were on our tails riding their brakes, I was very distracted. I had already twisted my ankle getting out of own cyclist’s way and now as I listened to continuous squealing brakes, I feared this person was going to run me over. I tried to move out of his way and I ended up hitting a rock and flying off the side of the trail. I would have rolled down a large embankment had I not fallen directly into a tree. I am a little banged and bruised from hitting the tree so hard, but the tree saved me from far worse injuries. Once I found my sunglasses, I dusted myself off and Steve and I continued on our way.

In an instant, I went from having a great time to wishing I had not started the race. I had to mentally talk myself through this rough patch. I could not allow some inconsiderate people to take away from the fun that I was experiencing. I had to pull myself out of the bad space I was going into mentally. I had come out to have fun with my husband, and I could not let anyone take that away from me.

We ran along as the course rolled between 10,000 and 10,500 feet for several miles. Finally, we descended back into town. We wound our way through the streets of Breckenridge, not exactly knowing how the race would finish up. We became extremely excited when we eventually saw our daughters waiting for us. We knew we must be right around the corner from the finish line. We crossed the finish in 5 hours and 55 minutes. We did not break any speed records, but we improved upon our 2007 time by an hour and neither of us was seriously injured. Steve and I started together and finished together. We had fun. We got in some beautiful miles. We achieved everything we had set out to do.

Our family at the finish line. The girls got to see us finish!

Our family at the finish line. The girls got to see us finish!

11902266_10204969087962620_6473511571409697593_n

With Debby, who had finished the half hours previously. She was showered & fresh as a daisy when we saw her at the finish.

With Debby, who had finished the half-marathon hours earlier.

John had finished about 15-16 minutes before us. Steve’s co-worker had finished in 4:46, a time that I cannot even fathom on that course. Colorado Springs elite runner Joseph Gray finished in 3 hours and 5 minutes. He is a super nice and humble guy who is a complete freak of nature. Can’t wait to see what he does next! The race finish line had an amazing spread of food from local vendors, which was a very nice treat after a long and difficult run.

I love this race. It is everything a Colorado mountain race should be. It has that nice small, low-key feel. The course is beautiful, breath-taking and challenging. Despite the high-altitude profile, much of the course is runnable, which I love. The post-race festivities are fun and the food is great. I really like this event and am sure we will be back.

After the race, Debby, John, Dave and our family went out for a bite to eat. We enjoyed spending the evening chatting with our friends away from the distractions of our normal lives.

Enjoying a post-race meal with my beautiful daughters

Enjoying a post-race meal with my beautiful daughters

Hanging out in front of the blue trees in downtown Breckenridge

Hanging out in front of the blue trees in downtown Breckenridge

Since the purpose of this weekend was to spend a little time bonding amid the chaos of the school year, our family opted to go for a hike on Sunday. We hiked up to Mohawk Lakes. We had done this hike last year in July, just about a month after I had finished chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. It is amazing how much easier it was to hike this now that the chemo is fully out of my system! We really enjoyed the beauty of the hike. It was the perfect way to finish off the weekend.

11921677_10204973782479980_2862701478840867700_n

11951130_10204973840521431_1334537118708250777_n

11903929_10204973840841439_4085417428705367465_n

As busy as we are and as tired as I get from spending a weekend out-of-town, it was much-needed time to reconnect with my kids and my husband. It felt great to get away from the distractions of every day life, if even only for 48 hours. All in all, this was a wonderful weekend. Mountain therapy is something I think we all needed.

11922960_10204722010946512_1759966698092813186_o

Finally, please check out the September issue of Ultrarunning Magazine. John Medinger wrote a lovely article about my pancreatic cancer experience and my Bryce 100 journey. I am greatly indebted to John and Ultrarunning Magazine for sharing my story.

11898547_10204964454646790_2773692039760300282_n

http://www.ultrarunning.com/

My Husband is a Pikes Peak Doubler!

Want to improve your overall happiness and satisfaction in life? Truly celebrate someone else’s success.

I cannot remember exactly when he started talking about it, but it was somewhere shortly after we met. My husband wanted to run the Pikes Peak Double. This consists of two races that take place over the same weekend. On Saturday, you run 13.1 miles to the top of Pikes Peak, which has an elevation of 14,115 feet. On Sunday, you run a full marathon up and then back down the mountain.

The amount of available oxygen at 14,000+ feet is about one-third of what it is at sea level. To give you an idea of how difficult these races are, the rule of thumb for the Ascent is to take your road marathon time and add 30 minutes. These are not races for the faint of heart.

In the Pikes Peak region, the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon are a big deal. On race day every year, nearly all of my running friends are lined up at their computers waiting for registration to open. For many people in this area, their entire year of training revolves around preparation for these two races. Many of the running posts I saw over the summer consisted of friends of mine at various places on the mountain. The races are an annual pilgrimage for most of my local friends who run.

A few brave souls take on the double, doing both events in the same weekend. Steve and I have both run these races before. I have done one or the other five times, but never both in the same weekend. Steve is now up to a total of ten finishes. He has talked about doubling for years. As a couple where both of us runs, works and raises a family, we have found getting in adequate training to be difficult. It takes time for us to drive down to the mountain and then spend the entire day running up and down. When our kids were little, we had to either hire a baby sitter or switch off days. If we swapped, we never saw each other. If we got a babysitter, it got expensive to train very quickly. Now that the kids are older, they are both very busy with their own activities. Our solution has been to simply pick different races. These last several years, I told Steve that the Peak was his to train for and complete. This year, the Bryce 100 was my big goal. I told him that his training would come first for the summer and I did my best to make sure that happened. This was his year to follow his big dream of doing the double.

I won’t go into all of the details of his training, except to say that I am very proud of my husband’s dedication. He works long hours and we traveled to sea level at a time when he should have been getting in his peak mileage. But, he did the best he could with what time he had to get his training in.

On Saturday, Steve finished his ascent in a time of 3:44. I could not be there because I was at volleyball with our daughter, but a friend sent me this photo of him up above treeline:

Photo credit: Meghan Cogswell

Photo credit: Meghan Cogswell

On Sunday, I dropped him off at the start before heading out for my own run.

Drop off

Drop off

The girls and I headed down to the race finish about an hour before we expected to see him. I checked the weather and everything looked fine, but when we got down to Manitou Springs, it started to pour. Nevertheless, there is something incredibly special about being at the finish line of Pikes Peak Marathons. All marathon finish lines are a fun place to be, but this race is special. Seeing people really dig deep at the end of a very long and grueling day is pretty amazing. Whether it is a flat-lander who is finishing for the first time, or one of the multitudes of local friends who are running for their 10th time, each finish is exciting and special to witness. My throat still hurts today from screaming for everyone.

Having a blast despite the pouring rain.

Having a blast despite the pouring rain.

My friend, Tracey, was up on top of the Peak and she sent photos of Steve from up high.

Headed up to the turn-around at 14,115 feet

Headed up to the turn-around at 14,115 feet photo credit: Tracey Anderson

We waited at the finish line until we saw him come running in. Unfortunately, I had water in my phone at that point and could not get a picture until a little later.

At the finish. So proud of my doubler!

At the finish. So proud of my doubler!

Though he has run the marathon nearly an hour faster than he did this past Sunday, I could not be more proud of happy for my husband. I have loved watching him fulfill a long-term goal and tough it out through the training and the two days of difficult racing. In the days leading up to this past weekend, I think I was more excited for him than I had been for my own races this year. The best part of loving someone is sharing in their joys and successes. I am ecstatic that I got to be a part of his weekend and witness him crossing the finish line of a goal a long time in coming.

Finally, congratulations to every single person who toed the starting line and/or crossed the finish line this weekend. It is such an amazing experience to share in everyone’s success. There are few places more rewarding than the finish line of race, whether I am running or spectating. Thank you Pikes Peak. Until next year!